Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2008, Jacque Rowe Fields reflects on the food heritage of black people in America.
Corn pudding, sweet potato pie, catfish, collard greens with ham hocks—if it’s fried, smothered, smoked, candied, buttered, battered, dipped, drizzled, or drenched in sugar and/or fat, it is likely to be a favorite soul food dish or Southern-style meal. But if you believe that Southern cuisine is synonymous with soul food, your sweet tea is short a few spoons of sugar.
Sure, there is culinary crossover. Both cooking styles share many of the same regional ingredients and basic instructions for preparation. And why wouldn’t they? The recipes were created by the same culinary artists. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and the “Mammy” symbolize the blacks who served as cooks, cleaners and caregivers for generations of whites across the United States during slavery and well into the Civil Rights era. For many years, the Mammy, with her flour-stained apron and red bandana, served as a source of embarrassment for some in the African American community. But for me, a black woman born and raised in the south, Mammy has always been the epitome of tenacity and creativity. Mammy raised a generation of would-be teachers, lawyers, nurses, and social activists on the scrapes from the butcher’s floor. With the fat, feet, tails, ears, organs, skins, and snouts of animals, Mammy ensured the survival of a people who, without her ingenuity, would have perished.
When racism and Jim Crow segregated the South right down to the last morsel of food, Mammy poured her soul into the animal remains, lentils, and leaves she prepared for the black family. Soul food is the “survival of a people” food. Culture, history, heroes, and heroines are connected to this food. And yet it is a painful reminder that blacks were considered “less-than”—unworthy, undeserving and sub-human. Like the front of the bus, the best foods were reserved for whites. The nutritional debate that rages on in the African American community around soul food favorites such as chitterlings (pig intestines), hog mog (the lining of a pig’s stomach), and sous (pig scrapes boiled into a jelly-like substance) is mixed and mingled with questions of identity. Do we disconnect from our heritage if we discontinue its menu? How do we reconcile the relationship between our beloved food and the glaring health risks associated with menu favorites? And while some argue over dietary choices, for others it is a moot point.
Racism continues to impact access to healthy food options in many communities of color. It is hard to replace fat with fresh and processed with produce when you are limited to the convenience store on the corner. Dave Chappelle’s bit on “grape drink vs. grape juice” is so relevant to the African American experience that even my 16-year-old laughed. The fact that Chappelle’s skit completely flew over the heads of my predominantly white college students is a testimony that privilege is alive and well in the United States. And shouldn’t it be? Throughout history, it has been fed the freshest produce and the finest cuts of meat.